Monday, September 14, 2009

Coffee at Tony's

Sep 12, 2009

Less than a week after the 1984 General Election results were announced, Tony Tan held a meeting in his house of the key second-generation leaders to pick the two men who would succeed as prime minister and deputy prime minister

AFTER PAP's setback in the 1984 General Election, some among the second-generation leaders were not sure if the leadership renewal should be followed through as had been planned.

In the plan, two among them would take over the two deputy prime minister positions vacated by Goh Keng Swee, who tendered his resignation to Lee Kuan Yew in the middle of the year, and S. Rajaratnam, who suffered a heart attack in the United States and underwent a bypass operation in London the previous year. The man named first deputy prime minister should, barring unforeseen circumstances, succeed Lee when the time came for the latter to step down.

If some of the others had their doubts, Tony Tan certainly was clear that the renewal should not be held back. As he recounted 20 years later: 'We knew we had a setback. Our feedback from the newspapers was that things were very bad and very uncertain. But my own feeling was that if you hesitated now, and people saw that you were uncertain as to what to do, they would lose confidence in you. So we should press ahead...I felt that very strongly.'

He acted quickly. On the evening of Dec 30, less than a week after the results were announced, he rounded up the key second-generation leaders and got them to go over to his Bukit Timah house. There, over coffee and orange juice, they would pick from among themselves the two men who would succeed Goh and Rajaratnam.

The group, comprising Tan, Ong Teng Cheong, S. Dhanabalan, Ch'ng Jit Koon, Lee Hsien Loong and four men from the 1980 cohort - Yeo Ning Hong, S. Jayakumar, Lee Yock Suan and Tay Eng Soon - arrived fairly quickly at a unanimous decision. Goh Chok Tong would be first deputy prime minister and Ong Teng Cheong, the second deputy.

Because he had a community event at Marine Parade, Goh Chok Tong arrived late at Tan's house, at about 9.30pm, by which time the decision had already been taken. After Tan had offered him a slice of chocolate cake, he asked: 'So okay, what have you decided?'

Tan, smiling, replied: 'You.'

Goh was not surprised. Neither did he hesitate in his acceptance of the group's decision. 'Well, this is a tough job,' he said to them. 'Since you have asked me to do the job, I will try and do it to the best of my ability. I hope you chaps will support me.'

Looking back on that moment, Goh remembered that his one thought was: Somebody had to do the job; it was critical for self-renewal. 'That someone didn't have to be me. It could be someone else. But if it had to be me, then I could not say no,' he said.

As soon as Goh had said yes to the group's decision, Tan telephoned Ahmad Mattar to ask him to come over to his house. He had not been able to reach Ahmad earlier. As the latter remembered it, he had gone out with his wife that evening. When he received Tan's call, it was almost midnight.

Briefed on the group's decision after he arrived at Tan's house, he said he was all for it.

There were a few previous meetings where Lim Chee Onn and Bernard Chen, another potential second-generation leader, were also involved.

Ahmad did not attend those because a leg fracture sustained a month before the election had put him in hospital for six weeks, and afterwards, he had to hobble on crutches for another month or so. Now with Ahmad in, Tan felt he had a full quorum.

Tan said he included Ch'ng Jit Koon in the meeting because the group could test their judgment with the veteran grassroots leader. Ch'ng, a Nanyang University graduate, joined PAP in 1968 and proved to be one of its most effective mobilisers on the ground. For many years, he managed Lee Kuan Yew's constituency work in Tanjong Pagar, besides his own in Tiong Bahru. Lee Hsien Loong was invited to the meeting as an observer because he was, according to Tony Tan, the best man in the 1984 cohort.

Like the others, Ch'ng believed that to complement Goh, the second deputy should be someone who was conversant in Chinese and could connect more readily with the Chinese-speaking population base. He felt Ong Teng Cheong was the right choice. Although Ong obtained his architecture degree from the University of Adelaide in Australia and a master's degree in civic design from the University of Liverpool in England, he was essentially Chinese-educated. He had his secondary school education in Chinese High, at the time the premier Chinese-language school in Singapore.

The meeting in Tony Tan's house was a historic moment. But as with many of such moments in the story of PAP after the 1970s, it was business as usual, with little or no fuss, and certainly no drama. It demonstrated, as Jayakumar was to tell the party organ, Petir, in a 1987 interview, 'a watershed in the group's ability to consult and establish a consensus'.

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